Why did Jesus curse a fig tree in Mark 11

The short answer: the curse of the fig tree represents what would happen to Israel if they didn't repent and obey.

read on to see why.

I got a really interesting question from an atheist friend, John, a few months ago. Sorry that I'm just getting to it today. 

Here's his question: 
Why did Jesus yell at / curse that fig tree? (I know it didn't bear him fruit, I mean more like - philosophically, is there a lesson we are supposed to be takimg away from that passage, does it have some meaning that I do not understand, etc.)?

What does the fig tree represent?

There are places in the OT where the nation of Israel (and her obedience to God) is represented by a fig tree. (Hosea 9:10, Micah 4:3-4, Joel 2:22, )

In a similar way there are a number of places where the disobedience and desolation of Israel was represented by the lack of fruit on the fig tree. (Jeremiah 8:13, Hosea 2:12, Joel 1:7, Amos 4:9, )

So in Mark 11:11-20 We find an interesting story, where Jesus curses a fig tree. Within itself it seems strange and almost cruel. Was he just angry, or was he trying to teach his disciples something? The curse of the fig tree comes to light when we see it in contest. 

In Mark 11:11-20 there is a kind of bracketed set.

A. Jesus entered the temple and leaves.
B. Jesus finds that the tree has no fruit and curses it.
A. Jesus finds the temple full of thieves and robbers and curses it.
B. Jesus' disciples find the tree withered.

A = At the temple.

B = At the fig tree.

It's significant in this story that we have a double bracketed location. We need to see these as parts of the same story, not isolated pieces. Jesus, and the author of this gospel are trying to show us that the fig tree story and the temple story are connected, and share a common meaning.

So what is the meaning? 

The Israel (and corresponding religious establishment) is the tree, their good deeds are the fruit. There lack of good deeds, and even evil actions are represented by the tree's lack of fruit.  God wants the religious leaders to obey him and produce good deeds.  However, like the tree, the Temple Elite did not obey and produce good deeds. Notice in the story that the money changers and religious leaders are who he calls thieves and robbers. 

An interesting note about fig trees. Fig trees bud fruit first, and then sprout leaves. If you see a fig tree with only leaves, it means that it will not bear figs for the entire season. So Jesus knew enough about fig trees to know that, not only did it lack fruit in the present, but it would lack fruit for a long time to come.

Israel was ultimately defeated around 70 A.D. Jesus predicts this event 30 years before it happened (Matthew 24:1-25, Mark 13:1-37, Luke 21:5-36) 

After Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple his disciples came to him and asked him "when will this happen?"

As he explained to them what would happen and how they would know the time is getting close he mentions the fig tree once more. (Luke 24:32-35) This probably served as a reminder to them, what he did to the fig tree. 

What happened to the tree?

In another place Jesus gave a parable about a fig tree that connects to this same idea.  (Luke 13:6-8) Considering that the fig tree represents the nation of Israel, we see in the parable that God expects the nation to "bear fruit." When they don't he plans for their destruction. However, at the last moment he spares them in hopes that they would eventually obey him. 

Notice in the parable of Luke 13:6-8 that the gardener worked for 3 years trying to make the fig tree bear fruit. This is a clear illustration of the work of Jesus. Jesus worked for three years trying to get the nation of Israel to obey God. He was like a tireless garner trying to make the poor old tree bear fruit. After the three years he would have been justified in cutting the tree down, but he decides to give the tree more time. In the same way, Jesus would have been justified in judging the nation of Israel and condemning them forever. However, he's pointing out here, that he hasn't given up on Israel, just like the gardner didn't give up on the tree. 

So the extra year, in the parable, represents the work of the apostles after Jesus' resurrection. For an extra few decades the apostles (Jesus' disciples) continued to offer Israel the message of Jesus. They begged and pleaded with them to accept Jesus as their messiah. Some believed, but the majority of the people of Israel rejected Christ. So eventually destruction came. In 70 A.D. Jerusalem, the temple, and the nation itself were defeated and destroyed. Finally the tree was cut down... 

The land where Israel had been laid in ruin for hundreds of years. It was occupied by various empires over the following centuries, but it never flourished. It became desert and took on the characteristics of a wilderness. 

That's not the end of the story.

In Luke 21:24 Jesus reveals that the tree (Israel) would not be completely destroyed. He says, "They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles until the times of the gentiles are fulfilled." 

1. He's predicting Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed. 
2. He's predicting Jews would be killed and taken away as prisoners. 
3. He's predicting that the Jews would survive.
4. He's predicting that Non-Jews would control Jerusalem for a time.
5. He's implying that at some point Jews would once again gain control of Jerusalem.

1. Jerusalem and Temple Destroyed

I've had atheist opponents who have said that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple were an obvious, almost fore drawn conclusion. They claim that Rome was in the habit of destroying cities. On the contrary, Rome was an empire of builders. There were times when Rome destroyed cities, like Carthage, but generally it was because that city represented another military power that challenged Rome's authority. By and large, Rome preferred to leave cities intact. There are obvious reasons for this. A destroyed city is a city strikes by poverty. If Rome could preserve a city, and bring it under control then taxes and tribute could be collected. Very little taxes came from a burning heap of rubble. In fact, Titus, the commander of the Roman forces during the Jewish war, wanted to preserve the Jewish temple. He claimed that his army burned the temple against his wishes. So Jerusalem being destroyed was not a fore drawn conclusion. 

2. Jews would be killed and taken away as prisoners.

In a similar manner I've had atheists claim that Rome was in the habit of banishing and exiling people from the lands that were conquered. This is wrong on two counts. Rome was in the habit of killing rebels, taking prisoners, and selling slaves, but didn't often exile people groups. In the various Jewish wars and revolts Rome killed hundreds of thousands of Jews at the destruction of the nation. Many more died of hunger. Titus took some Jewish prisoners to Rome and sold some Jews as slaves in Libya. However, Josephus (our best source on the subject) doesn't say anything about exile or banishment. Centuries later there were bans on Jews entering the City of Jerusalem. Even still there have been small numbers of Jews living in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas for about 3300 years. This matters because Jerusalem is it's people. Rome renamed the city Aelia Capitolina after it's destruction, and it became a pagan city. However, the small number of Jews that remained were "trampled" by the gentiles for nearly two thousand years. 

3. Jews would survive.

I've had atheist opponents who claim this is not surprising. However, think about this. Virtually all ancient ethnicities disappear by way of assimilation. Where are the Etruscans, the Babylonians, the Akkadians, even the Romans no longer exist. They all assimilated into what ever culture was around them. Generally this happens when the nation dissolves. When a people group no longer has a home land, or a region to occupy, they get assimilated. It's happened thousands of times throughout history. Homeless people groups don't retain their distinctness, but eventually disappear. That is true of virtually all ancient ethnic groups except the Jews. Now add on top of that the fact that the Jews have been expelled from virtually every country they have taken cup residence in. They have been persecuted everywhere they have gone. The Jews are the only people to have a word for the mistreatment they have experienced (anti-semitism). They have remained around a population of 1 million for 1600 years. Hitler killed 6 million Jews which was a huge percentage of the entire Jewish population of about 16.6 million at that time. The only way most persecuted peoples survive is by having a large enough population to absorb  the destruction. The Jews have been small in number for most of their existence, have many attempts to bring about their destruction, and yet they live on. It's not an obvious or fore drawn conclusion that the Jews would survive. None-the-less Jesus predicted it, and it's come to be. 

4. Non-Jews would control Jerusalem for a time.

This is exactly what happened. Jerusalem was controlled by Gentile Rulers for 1887 years. So Jerusalem was trampled by the Gentiles.  Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Arab, Crusaders, Mamluk, Ottoman, and British rulers all controlled the land at various times. 

5. At some point Jews would once again gain control of Jerusalem.

However, Jesus said that it would come to an end. He said, "until the times of the gentiles are fulfilled." So basically he's saying, at the point when Jerusalem is no longer controlled by gentiles, the time of the Gentiles is over. That seems redundant, but theres something important in it. It predicts few things. It predicts that the Jews would regain some national cohesion. It predicts that they would grow in military power enough to retake the city. This was considered an impossible task. How could Jews ever retake Jerusalem without having a military to do it? How could Jews have a military if they didn't have a nation? How could Jews have a nation if they didn't have Jerusalem? For many years this verse was viewed as being either allegorical, or was someday going to be fulfilled when Jesus returned. However, in 1948 the nation of Israel was reestablished. However, the national boundaries didn't include most of Jerusalem. For a number of years Israel grew. In 1967 Israel took back Jerusalem from the gentiles. If you haven't read accounts of the six day war, you should. Many who fought in it describe the happenings as unexplained, and even miraculous. Whatever the case may be, Jesus predicted it would happen and it did. 

None of these things are vague and they describe very unlikely events. None-the-less they came true.

So what does this have to do with the fig tree?

Wow, that was quite a detour. Back to the point! The point of the fig tree illustration was prophetic in nature. Jesus was showing his disciples, and us, that something dark and sinister would happen to the nation of Israel because they had continued to rebel. However, it shows that God never gives up on a promise. He promised that he would  make his people as numerous as grains of sand. That hasn't happened yet, but it seems to be on its way. 

What about us?

This could easily leave us asking the question, "what about me?" I'm a Christian, and not in any way Jewish. (My parents recently had a DNA test done via ancestry.com... no Jewish blood.) I'm totally a gentile. Good News! for all of you gentiles out there. God loves his people the Jews. He also says that he as another people. In John 10:16 he's talking to the Jews and he says,  "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock and one shepherd."

So Jesus points out that, while he loves the Jews, he also is planning to bring another group into the fold. Who is this other group? It's US. He says, "they too will listen to my voice." He explains that those who listen to his voice, are as good and as loved as the people he originally chose. He values us as well (those who believe in him)!

What's the Lesson?

It seems that the lesson of the fig tree is pretty simple. Listen to the words of Jesus. Heed his instructions. Believe in him. John 3:16 tells us that anyone who believes in him as access to immortality. Those who believe in Jesus as the giver of eternal life, desiring to have that life, will have it. Believe in Jesus for eternal life and you will never perish as the verse says.